Note: while this post refers in particular to the ‘Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle’, the Jardin des Plantes and its many buildings house the Musée de la Minéralogie, the Cabinet d’Histoire du Jardin des Plantes, the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes zoo, the Galerie de la Paléontologie and the Galerie d’Evolution. All are connected and worth visiting.
While I’m always reading a book or three, these days I rarely find myself glued to a page turner. Perhaps I’m too much of a snob and keep selecting books known for their dense, convoluted writing. Perhaps I should stop choosing books for their epic reputations. Perhaps I’ve been blurring the line between work and pleasure for too long and I need to stop reading philosophy as bedtime material. Either way, when I sat down to read Anthony Doerr’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself immersed in a flowing, emotive read. For the first time in ages, I was reading a book I found very difficult to put down.
Set before and during the Second World War in both France and Germany, ATLWCS is not your average war story, as it alternates perspectives between a German boy and a French girl. The latter, Marie-Laure, flees Paris with a secret and takes refuge in the seaside town of Saint-Malo. Yet despite the engaging story, the book’s beauty lies in how she shares her experience with the reader. Marie-Laure’s wartime suffering, her fears and solaces, her encounters with new people and her relationships with old ones, are related through touch, taste, sound, smell. For Marie-Laure is blind.
Before the war breaks out, Marie-Laure lives a modest but comfortable life in Paris with her kindly father, and spends much of her time reading Braille books at his workplace: le Musée de l’Histoire Naturelle, or Museum of Natural History. A mysterious treasure trove of preserved creatures with velvet fur, rare crystals with smooth surfaces and whisper-light silken feathers, Marie-Laure discovers the museum through touch. Through activities like arranging exotic shells by size, she develops a meaningful connection with nature and history without the aid of the sense most museums rely on.
Now, don’t let this be false advertising for the beautiful Musée de l’Histoire Naturelle: you can’t just pick up the exhibits and roll them around in your hands, breathing in their physicality the way Marie-Laure does in All the Light We Cannot See. But while I have long appreciated this fifth-arrondissement museum, Marie-Laure’s sensory adventures through its halls gave me a fresh appreciation for the collection’s beauty and tactility.
There is a paradoxical intimacy and distance present in any museum. Glass cases separate us from exhibits and, in so doing, remove a little of their realness. So when you visit the Musée de l’Histoire Naturelle, tucked away in the Jardin des Plantes, do as Marie-Laure does and regard its crystals and crustaceans as the natural, lived objects of the earth that they are. As you admire a chunk of raw, glittering amethyst, close your eyes and imagine running your fingers over its glossy, geometric formations. Imagine it to be heavy, misshapen, cool to the touch. Imagine the steely, earthy, glassy whisper of a scent it might give off if you held it up to your nose.
You can’t actually do this, of course. But you can immerse yourself in these experiences, guided by your eyes. Museum objects are real, and so was Marie-Laure’s experience of them, for there is more than one way to explore, discover and appreciate.